COACH LAWRIE TO LEAD BULLS’ 2022 CHARGE
Andrew Auimatagi’s prosperous six-season tenure as New Era Glazing Canterbury Bulls coach concluded at the end of 2021, but the provincial team’s transition under a new regime shapes as a seamless one.
Hornby Panthers coach Jed Lawrie – a fierce coaching rival of Auimatagi’s at club level and his Canterbury’s assistant for several seasons – has been confirmed as the Bulls’ 2022 head coach.
Lawrie was an obvious choice to succeed his long-time rep footy collaborator. He guided the Panthers to four straight Grand Finals from 2016-19 – losing to Auimatagi’s Linwood side on each occasion – before steering the club to a drought-breaking triumph over the Keas in last season’s epic CRL premiership decider.
Behind Lawrie’s often laconic exterior burns a genuine passion for his club and the game – as was evidenced in an emotional aftermath to the Panthers’ victory last year – which extends to fostering rugby league at a local level.
“I’ve watched my brother, Corey, represent the Bulls and then when I started coaching it’s something I wanted to do,” Lawrie says.
“Working with Andrew for so long just gave me more of that drive to one day go and coach the Bulls – it means a hell of a lot.
“(Hornby’s Grand Final win) was more just relief, I think, after losing a few. Winning that and then getting the Bulls job probably made everything a little bit sweeter.”
The Auimatagi era at the Bulls has been responsible for creating a culture of positivity and accountability.
Naturally, Lawrie has also played a significant role in putting that framework in place and it provides an ideal mould to base his first campaign in charge from – while also adding a fresh approach.
“Andrew’s had a lot of good stuff in place at the Bulls for a long time, so I’ll be carrying a lot of his good work on and putting my own touch on it,” Lawrie explains.
“I’m fortunate that Andrew wants to repay my work helping him – he wants to help out with this year’s campaign in a small way, which is awesome.”
After COVID-19 threw the 2021 end-of-season representative schedule into disarray, a Canterbury line-up stacked with new faces in key positions kicked off with wins over West Coast and Southland. But the Bulls were subsequently rolled by Otago in a historic upset before losing the NZRL Sky Sports National Men’s Competition final to Upper Central Stallions at their Ngā Puna Wai home base.
Lawrie says he will be encouraging a youthful, rebuilding Bulls squad to “explore some creative freedom” out on the paddock in 2022.
“We’ve got some talented footballers, so I’ll try and develop them a bit more.
“The first port of call will be trying to develop a quality spine – we’re a bit short on the spine in Christchurch these days, so I’ll catch up with the premier coaches and see how we can go about developing really strong spine players.”
Despite the unexpected losses, Lawrie draws some healthy positives from the Bulls’ 2021 efforts.
“Losing our marquee players because of COVID was hard, but the group we had worked really hard. It was a bit of an ambush playing in the South Island comp, they were all out to get us. We had a lot of young boys debuting and it was their first taste of that rep-style footy.
“But you take away from it the amount of players who debuted and learned the intensity they need to get up to, to be at that level to play for the Bulls. That’s a massive bonus going into this campaign.
“They fell in and out of games at times, so most of the feedback is getting them to that next level of intensity for long periods. Hopefully they’ll come back this year bigger and stronger.”
While the likes of fullback sensation Sincere Harraway, who co-captained the team in his first year as a Bulls rep, hooker Zac Riley and skilful forward Kyle Amer should help form the core of Canterbury teams for years to come, Lawrie is hopeful of having a few more older heads on deck in 2022.
That experience will be vital when the Bulls, chasing their first NZRL National Premiership crown since 2014, line up against Akarana and Counties-Manukau players who have been deprived of big-match footy in recent times.
“At premiership level you need your top-of-the-line players. We’re in an era where COVID plays a big part and it’s hard for the boys to commit when things are off and on, so hopefully we get all the senior guys and some really good young ones coming through and get that right mix to compete in the premiership.
“With [the Auckland teams] not having a Grand Final or rep season for a few years they’ll be really hungry, so we need to make sure we get all our top-line players ready to go against a couple of hungry Auckland teams.”
Lawrie will juggle his maiden season at the helm of the Bulls with his seventh year as Panthers coach – though that wasn’t initially the plan.
“I wasn’t meant to be coaching Hornby this year, but winning the Grand Final last year I was keen to come back and defend it,” he reveals.
“Some say you should go out on a high, but trying to defend the title is something that motivates me quite a bit so standing down was never an option.
“I’ll try and get a few people to watch a few other games and catch up with the premier coaches now and again to see how their players are tracking (for potential Bulls selection).”
Lawrie has developed into an outstanding coach and a respected figure in Canterbury Rugby League circles since picking up the clipboard.
As he prepares to take the next step in his coaching journey, Lawrie paid tribute to a pair of key mentors – his Hornby and Canterbury predecessors.
“I’ve been very lucky to work with Brent Stuart and Andrew (Auimatagi), two great coaches.
“Working with Andrew for so long in rep footy – the way he thinks, his brain, his knowledge – he’s done unbelievable amounts of work for rugby league in Canterbury. Part of me said to him, ‘you don’t have to step down’, but we’re not going to lose him completely which is massive. You want to keep a guy like that in rugby league for as long as possible.
“Every player that has played for the Bulls under Andrew has walked away a better and more knowledgeable footballer, which speaks volumes for the sort of coach he is.”